No. 6 Michigan kept its Big Ten championship hopes alive with a 21-17 win over Penn State on Saturday in Happy Valley. The Wolverines played smothering defense throughout the game and added in some timely offense to hold off a strong Nittany Lions effort.
Michigan was led defensively by its dynamic pass-rushing duo of Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo, as the twosome combined for five sacks and two forced fumbles while the Michigan defense finished the day with seven sacks and 12 tackles for loss. That constant pressure and havoc continually disrupted any chance at momentum for the Penn State offense.
The Nittany Lions did have their chances, though. A Tyler Warren touchdown reception and Jahan Dotson two-point conversion halfway through the fourth quarter tied the game 14-14 before Penn State took a 17-14 lead a few minutes later after capitalizing on a Michigan turnover with a field goal. The Wolverines would answer immediately, however, as Erick All took a short crossing route 47 yards to the end zone to score what would prove to be the game-winning touchdown.
Michigan QB Cade McNamara threw for 217 yards and three touchdowns, while Hassan Haskins carried the ball 31 times for 156 yards. Sean Clifford led the way for Penn State, passing for 205 yards, but was pressured far too often throughout the game.
1. Most complete Michigan offense in years
For too long, the Michigan offense has only been good at one thing, if anything at all. The Wolverines either run the ball but have no passing game of which to speak, or it's the other way around. That's not the case with this Michigan offense.
It felt that way early in the season, as Michigan ran over its nonconference competition while not relying on its passing game often. At first, it felt like this was out of necessity based on Michigan's recent history. But it turns out that it just wasn't needed yet. Throughout conference play, the Wolverines have shown an ability to move the ball through the air.
McNamara isn't the kind of quarterback that will cause scouts to drool or garner Heisman attention, but he plays well within this offense and doesn't make mistakes. Still, to call him a game manager wouldn't be accurate because he's capable of making plays, too. While he threw for only 217 yards today, he took care of the ball and completed key passes when the Wolverines needed them. With how well the Michigan defense has played and as solid as its special teams units have been, this kind of balance on offense makes the Wolverines a legitimate threat in the Big Ten over the final few weeks.
2. Hassan Haskins comes through in big way
It was announced shortly before kickoff that Michigan running back Blake Corum didn't make the trip and will miss the next couple of weeks with an ankle sprain. That put the load on Haskins' shoulders, and he was more than ready to handle it.
Haskins has spent most of the season splitting carries with Corum and being used as the between-the-tackles back. He showed an ability to do much more today. Not only did Haskins lead the Wolverines in rushing with 156 yards, but he led the team in receptions, too, bringing in five passes for 45 yards.
3. Mike McDonald is terrific with Michigan defense
McDonald wasn't a well-known name when Jim Harbaugh tabbed him to take over his defense, but it's hard to argue with the decision. This Michigan unit has been nasty at all levels this season, and it continued today. Everything Michigan does defensively starts up front with Hutchinson and Ojabo, and they did their part yet again. The duo combined for five sacks, but they were far from the only playmakers on the Michigan defense today.
Junior Colson and Josh Ross combined for 23 tackles, five different players finished with sacks and D.J. Turner broke up two passes in coverage. It's a unit playing exceptionally well, and Jim Harbaugh better thank his brother John at Thanksgiving for recommending McDonald.
4. James Franklin makes odd decisions
When Franklin ran a fake punt in the first quarter, I liked the decision. It was an aggressive choice to try and catch Michigan by surprise. I hated it when he opted for a fake field goal later in the quarter while facing a fourth-and-goal from the two.
If you're going to go for it in that situation, just send your offense out there. Don't rely on a couple of specialists to do something out of their comfort zone in a huge spot. It blew up in Penn State's face and changed the face of the game. Instead of Michigan being down two scores early, the Wolverines played poorly for a quarter and found themselves down only a field goal.
5. Sean Clifford deserves respect
I've been harsh on Clifford over the last few years, but Penn State's problems are not his fault. The entire offense is on his bruised and battered shoulders. He's playing behind an offensive line that hasn't been able to block anybody this season, with no help from the run game. Clifford is dropping back on every snap and either has to find an open receiver while avoiding multiple pass rushers, or he has to take off on his own and serve as the Nittany Lions rushing attack.
Sometimes it works, but he's not capable of doing it for 10 plays and the length of the field. This has been a disappointing season for the Nittany Lions, but I've earned a ton of respect for Clifford in the process.